Upon hearing about Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill, a feminist dystopia in which girls are bred for their beauty, I knew I had to read it. As a woman, I knew it would have me raging, I knew it would sicken me. But I was in no-way prepared for how absolutely horrifying it would be.
In a world where women are genetically engineered, designed to perfection, with the sole purpose to please men, freida and isabel are starting their final year of School. At the end of the year, it will be decided if they will be a companion to a man, being his wife and baring him sons; a concubine, living out life in a harem, providing sexual gratification for any man who wants them; or a chastity, a nun-like woman who lives a life of quiet selflessness or as a teacher at the School. There are only ten men who can choose from the 30 available girls – only ten will become companions. Everyone is eager to be the most beautiful, and competition and cattiness is encouraged, as is self-hate and the desire to always look better. In this final year, while all are excited and eager to see what the outcome will be, isabel starts putting on weight and neglecting her appearance. frieda cannot believe what her best friend is doing, but if she wants any future for herself, how can she be seen to feel anything but disgust for her friend?
I first read this in September 2014, and I’ve yet to stop thinking and talking about it. It’s one of those books that sticks out in your mind, that you’ll always remember. My little summary barely scratches the surface of what you’ll find in Only Ever Yours‘ pages. The first half of this book is dedicated to showing just what nasty and cruel girls can, and are encouraged, to be. The venom that comes out of the girls mouths, disguised as advice to help their peers improve, is disgusting. Beauty is everything. Making others doubt their beauty is paramount. Judging everyone is not only encouraged, it’s a class. Two girls will be put against each other, and the rest of the class will discuss their physical strengths and weaknesses in comparison, no holds barred. It’s the bitchiness between girls at real schools heightened to unimaginable degrees. And yet… it’s not that far away from what happens at schools, from what a group of women will say when flicking through a magazine and judging celebrities. And the self-hatred, oh my god. If someone is prettier than you, then you are not pretty enough. You are ugly. You are failing. Failing is not an option. So you starve yourself. Or you make sure you use the Vomitorium if you’re eating too much. Or you take medication to help you sleep, because dark circles are inconceivable. Being beautiful means you’re popular. Being beautiful and popular means you’ll be liked by men. The lengths these girls will go to to be liked by the Queen Bee megan are atrocious. And that’s without touching on how they’re supposed to behave. Women don’t cry, women don’t get angry, women don’t get hysterical. Women are agreeable and happy and pleasant and calm. Inappropriate behaviour will be punished.
In this part of the book there is a lot of talk about the purpose of a woman – to please a man, but the main focus is on the competition, which we see more of towards the second half of the book. It’s then when the book gets even more disturbing. You might have noticed none of the girls names start with a capital. Women are subhuman and are not deserving of a capital letter at the beginning of their name. Women having wants? What? Women are not here to want, they are here to please, in any which way a man requires. “Feminist” is a dirty word, used as the most scathing of insults. frieda. Poor frieda. She tries so god damned hard to do what’s right, to be popular, to be beautiful, to become a companion. Her conscience constantly fights with her desire to get the right life. She is brainwashed and manipulated. She is so desperately unhappy, but she has no control.
O’Neill really gets you thinking about other issues, as well as the ones already covered, such as race, class, health, and sexuality. Amongst the girls, there are no races – at least not in the way we think of race now. frieda isn’t white, she has the olive skin tone of someone either European or Middle Eastern, but there is no mention of race or ethnic background for her. All the girls are genetically engineered to have the skin colour and eye-shape they have for aesthetical reasons – again it’s all to please men.
As popularity is so important while at school, it’s a similar case for what the girls want outside. When it comes to the young men coming to the school, Darwin is the object of flattery and the girls attempt to impress him because he is the son of a Judge, and is likely to become a judge himself. Although their purpose is to please men, they’re also still concerned about how they will be seen once they are companion, and a lot of prestige will come with being chosen by someone so high-ranking.
Being genetically engineered, the women are not disabled in any way. Early on in the book, isabel and frieda talk about a time when frieda fell out of a tree as a child and broke her arm, and how aghast one of the chastities was when it came to taking her daily foto. The girls are encouraged to cultivate eating disorders – if you’ve put on a few pounds, you should starve yourself, or go to the Vomitorium to get rid of what you’ve eaten. Being so skinny your bones can be seen is something others envy. And when women get too old and can no longer provide their husbands with sons, they are to kill themselves by throwing themselves on the pyre, so they’re no longer a burden to their husbands, and their husbands can get new companions.
Homosexuality isn’t allowed. Gay people are called aberrants, and, as you can guess, are considered abhorrent. Being guilty of being unable to control their “unnatural urges”, female aberrants are punished. Darwin tells frieda about two women who were caught together, and how they were tried to be rehabilitated. ‘“‘Straighten’ them out, force them to enjoy the love of a good man. Quite a few good men if the stories are true.”’ (p264) And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. However, the gene that can cause girls to be aberrant has been eradicated, so there shouldn’t be any more cases aberrant females – though two concubines having sex for the pleasure of men is perfectly fine.
The last third of the book is where it becomes the most horrifying. O’Neill does a marvellous job of building it up – just when you thought you couldn’t be any more disgusted with this world and its treatment of women, O’Neill throws something else at you. The ending is absolutely terrifying – not just for what happens, but for how the characters feel and react to it. I finished this book absolutely numb with shock. I was so far beyond righteous indignation, so far beyond disgusted. I was overcome with anguish for frieda, for isabel. For the women of this world, no matter what they think of the world they live in. I know better.
And that’s the startling point that O’Neill hammers home; we know better, and yet Only Ever Yours is an exaggerated mirror-image of the world we live in now. We have gossip magazine that shame female celebrities for their “flaws” and criticise their clothes, where fad diets are all the rage and women go to extraordinary lengths to lose weight, where we are still objectified by men. Body image is such a huge thing for women, and more often than not, women have a really unhealthy body image. O’Neill shows us, with her exaggerated dystopian world, just how close we are to living in that nightmare and just how terrifying that is.
I did not enjoy Only Ever Yours, but it’s not a book to be enjoyed. It’s a book to shine a light on the treatment of women. Of how they are seen in society. Of how they are judged by men and other women. Of what worth is placed on women, if women have any. It’s hard-hitting, it’s thought-provoking, and it’s absolutely incredible. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book quite like it. No review I could write could ever do it justice. It’s a brave book, and it’s a triumph. Only Ever Yours won the inaugural YA Book Prize 2015 on 19th March, and it is absolutely a deserved winner.
This September sees the release of O’Neill’s second novel, Asking For It, which covers the difficult subject of rape culture and victim blaming, and I absolutely cannot wait to read it.
Joanne Stapley is a Children’s Bookseller at Foyles, Charring Cross Road. Joanne also runs YA and fantasy book blog Once Upon a Bookcase, which is currently shortlisted for the Champion of YA Award in the UKYA Blogger Awards. Follow Joanne on Twitter @Jo_OUaB.